So you wanna be a startup CEO…5 qualities you absolutely need

Paul_and_me_casino

Being a startup CEO seems to be an attractive occupation right now and one that the press & certainly Hollywood makes look pretty easy as well as fairly glamorous.  I thought I’d write a blog about my own views on the necessary qualities people need to make it through to the other side.  Please note that being the CEO of a startup requires a different set of qualities to being CEO of a mature & established business and indeed, that sort of experience may well be a hindrance in a startup environment.  Also it’s no accident that the photo of Paul & me above shows us in a casino setting – there’s a lot of luck at play as well – so don’t feel too bad if your startup is one of the 50% or so that fail in the first year.   

I’ve seen other bloggers make great long lists of these but I’ve distilled mine down to 5 main qualities:

1.       RESILIENCE – this is the big one.  It’s also a quality you should look for in a business partner or in your team members as you recruit them.  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In reality in a work setting it means being able to continue functioning & making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working 16 hour days consistently).  As part of this quality I would include not bleating about how miserable you are & making your colleagues feel bad as well – there’s nothing worse than that.  Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money & you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now, it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go & catch a plane to London even though you only finished work at 10pm last night, it’s what makes you sit down & start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert.  In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going & you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.  At the end of the day, having the stamina & energy required to make a new company a success should not be overlooked.  The amount of sheer hard graft is savage & impossible to communicate to anyone that hasn’t been there.

2.       READING PEOPLE AND SITUATIONS – you need to be naturally good at this and it’s the quality that stops others from pulling the wool over your eyes.  First up you need to have a gut feel about how things are going for the company – you should be able to just tell, a bit like second sight.  You also need a natural ability to read your markets and know what products are right, when to launch them, etc.  Other times you use this is in appraising ideas (which you do on an hourly basis in a startup) and rapidly sorting them into good & bad, negotiating, making decisions (most of the time with a serious lack of information), recruiting people, choosing partners and so on.

3.       OPTIMISM & POSITIVITY – if you don’t have this alongside being the keeper of your original vision, don’t expect anyone else to believe in your company and that goes for both team members & people outside.  I don’t mean blind belief but I do mean being confident and using a bit of spin when you need to.  By that, I don’t mean lying to your team about stuff – it’s more about protecting them from many of the stresses that they don’t need to know about as they have no ability to influence the outcome & it will only distract everyone.  You need to be able to absorb all of this burden and put a smile on your face and your best foot forward at all times.

4.       RISK – I’m unsure if this is a quality or not but being a startup CEO and being risk-averse do not walk along hand in hand.  You will borrow large sums of money, you will guarantee those loans against whatever tangible assets you own, you will take major decisions without any of the information you need never mind would like, you will fail at stuff over & over again.  If you are unable to compartmentalise & shut these things away in a place where you don’t think about them – you aren’t cut out for this life.  It will make you ill & paralyse you with fear.

5.       LEADERSHIP & VISION – your team needs to look up to you & your customers & other stakeholders will hopefully admire you & what you’ve achieved.  You need to keep the team on track, communicating the shared vision to them over & over again so that no-one ever loses sight of where you’re going, you need to be able to pull off what I call “Take my hand & walk with me into the abyss” when you only have half the story yourself and you need to be able to keep it real – no-one wants to work for a CEO that never does any work themselves.

I hope this helps any of you that are thinking about going down this route yourselves.  It’s hard work & unrelenting being in or heading up a startup but it’s also deeply satisfying and a lot of fun.  Always interested in hearing your views so post your comments up below.

 

5 comments

  1. Great blog post Mary – if a little daunting! I’ve decided to get the ball rolling this year on setting up my own communications/PR business after mulling it over for the best part of two years. I was a journalist for 10 years and I’ve worked in local gov comms for three. I also run a local news website for my home town, Stone in Staffordshire.Although it would be self-employment rather than me taking people on, your top 5 list is still relevant to me and I’ll definitely be coming along to your Local Gov Camp session!

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  2. There’s prob another blog about the challenges of being a self-employed freelancer – but you’ve no doubt already been there as a journalist. For me it’s the phenomenal effort of networking & chasing work that people tend to underestimate when they go out on their own – when you’re in a PAYE job, all that “downtime” is paid for by your employer – when you’re on your own, when you’re not working on chargeable work – you aren’t earning. People coming to freelance for the first time forget to factor all that stuff in when they make their plans – plus travel can be a significant overhead if it’s relevant to what you do.Glad you enjoyed the blog & look forward to meeting you on Saturday at #ukgc11

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  3. Thanks Mary – totally agree. My plan is to reduce my working hours at the day job and build things slowly. *Very* early days though. Lots to think about and plan! See you on Saturday 🙂

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  4. Starting a business and being the head of the business has never been easy. A lot of struggles can come up and you need to face them to reach success. But I think sometimes the CEO or the head of a startup business should also think that he or she is NOT alone. Sure, he or she carries 80% of the company’s burden but he or she should also develop trust in their employees that they are capable of achieving the company’s goals and successes. In that case, the burden will be alleviated some. Together they can overcome struggles and achieve the company’s success.

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